Philip Johnson in Dallas

Philip Johnson in Dallas

Thursday night, the Dallas Architecture Forum welcomes Christy MacLear, Executive Director of Philip Johnson’s Glass House for another program in their 2009-2010 Lecture Series.  We wanted to use the opportunity to explore Johnson’s architecture here in Dallas and points just to our west. 

First off, to discover just about all there is to know about Philip Johnson and his work in the Lone Star State, you must read Frank Welch’s brilliant book Philip Johnson & Texas.  It’s a invaluable resource for your architecture library.

Johnson’s first work in our neck of the woods was the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.  The original box-like building with its porch and white stone arches was completed in 1961.  (Johnson also designed the Museum’s various extensions, the last completed in 2001.)

Similar design elements are seen in the North Dallas home that Johnson designed for Patty and Henry Beck.  Two tiers of cast-concrete arches surround the home in a combination of loggias, windows and in-filled spaces.  The interior centerpiece of the house is a pair of curving stairways that Mrs. Beck insisted upon. Originally, the pavilion-like dining room was upholstered in Fortuny fabric.   I can say from personal experience that the arches are even more astonishing as you gaze from inside the home at the lawns and gardens surrounding the home.

The architect’s 1970 memorial to the assassinated John F. Kennedy has been somewhat controversial.  (It even showed up in a recent local column about “ugly” buildings downtown that should be demolished.)  Some see it as too plain, but the Kennedy family wanted something simple, and, for many of us, the stark “empty tomb” just blocks from Dealey Plaza is a fitting tribute.

Johnson’s remaining work in the area was designed in partnership with John Burgee. And their next two North Texas projects were park spaces.  The 1977 Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas borrows some of its design elements from the earlier Fort Worth Water Garden (1974). Both are angular, but serene oases in the middle of their respective city’s downtown, and both use sunken spaces and wandering pathways to provide respite from the urban life around them.

The fact that Johnson designed the façade for the Marshall Field (now Saks) store (1982) at the Dallas Galleria deserves mention, but one can’t discuss Johnson in North Texas without mentioning two major developments in or near the center of the city at the height of the Texas real estate boom.  The 1985 Crescent complex with its French mansard roofs and iron grillwork might seem a departure, but Welch’s book points out that Johnson went out of his way to connect it to Texas regional architecture, comparing it to buildings in Galveston.  Someone else points out that with all the chateau-esque mansions being built for wealthy Dallasites, it “seemed right.”

Johnson’s tallest contribution in the area is one that still is a major part of Dallas’ signature skyline.  Comerica Tower (originally Bank One Center) was completed in 1987.  It’s a pink granite tower with an impressive lobby of barrel vaults, marble and exotic woods.  The vaults are repeated at the top of the building’s 60 stories.

A Houston critic once mused that “Philip Johnson saved his worst Texas buildings for Dallas,” but the Crescent and Comerica Tower are reflective of the nouveau riche lifestyle so embraced in the 1980’s.  And one must agree that Johnson’s earlier works are some of the most striking architectural accomplishments in the area.

Join the Forum Thursday night to learn more about the Glass House, Johnson’s home and perhaps most iconic achievement.

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